Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 3: Threes & Perimeter Actions

Think back to when you watched basketball games a decade ago. Sure, the players were different, and the jerseys and shorts were quite a bit baggier. Not every game came in HD, and for March Madness, you couldn’t watch four games at once; it was whatever CBS determined was of interest to you at the time. Most importantly, the style of play was a lot different: three-pointers represented 33.1% of all shots, compared to 38.5% now. Plus, offensive rebounds mattered a lot more – the average team’s OREB% was 34.5%, while last season’s average was the lowest in modern history at 28.4%. Teams are more perimeter-oriented than they’ve ever been before, and it’s required both systematic and philosophical adjustments from coaches nationwide.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen this rise happen in real time, not all at once. After the NCAA introduced the three-point line in 1986 at 19 feet, 9 inches, the rate of three-pointers attempted to overall shots rose for 22 consecutive seasons. The NCAA moved it back a foot in 2008-09, and for the next two seasons, it seemed like it had shorted out the rise: a drop from 34.5% of all shots in 2007-08 to 33.1% the next season, followed by 32.6% in 2009-10. And then, it’s exploded: a 6.1% rise in the course of nine seasons, with teams attempting more threes than ever before.

What’s the deal? Why are teams so perimeter-oriented now? And, yes, what happened to the offensive rebound? We’ll answer all of those in this piece, but we need to unlock the keys to the three-pointer’s value first. Here’s why the three-pointer is good:

  • It counts for more than a two-pointer. Duh.
  • More importantly: it’s a more efficient shot than a mid-range attempt. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the Houston Rockets’ impact on basketball throughout America. Daryl Morey’s group was the first team to truly prioritize shot selection above all other metrics, taking exclusively three-pointers or shots at the rim because, simply enough, they were the most valuable shots. 82games.com was one of the first sites to publish this, stating that close shots and threes correlated with more regular season wins. I’d also credit them with popularizing the corner three, the most beloved three-point shot of all, because it was worth 13.5 more points per 100 possessions at the time. Mid-range attempts, well…not so good.
  • It’s the great equalizer. Any coach worth their weight in America will tell you that you can’t rely entirely on threes to win games. Most coaches, in fact, would add that threes still aren’t the first shot they want; that’s a rim attempt. But a hot night from three can open up new possibilities. That’s why eFG% is a much better stat than FG%. For example, let’s say Team A makes 28 of their 56 attempts, but Team B makes 25 of 56. (For ease of time, assume they make the same number of free throws.) In 1985 and prior, Team A wins by six points. However, Team B made 12 of their 25 three-point attempts, while Team A went 5 of 19 from three. Because of the three-pointer, Team B wins by a point in a game where they made fewer shots.
  • Lastly: it can open up the rest of the floor. Each coach I talked to told me just how important spacing was for their offense. No spacing, no shots; no shots, no spacing. If you’re able to hit threes, you’re able to force defenders out of the paint, which gives you easier buckets inside. It’s not a coincidence that, for this piece, all three teams profiled attempted threes, layups, or dunks for at least 80% of their shots. They had excellent shot selection, and it allowed them to open up the entire floor.

However, not all threes are equal. Catch-and-shoot threes, on average, are worth 24.1 points more per 100 possessions than pull-up/off-the-dribble threes. Open threes, per Synergy, are +15.6 per 100 possessions versus guarded ones. Here’s the ultimate question: how do you maximize your number of open catch-and-shoot threes in a game where everyone knows that’s what you’re looking for? That’s for these excellent teams, and their smart coaches, to answer.

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